This minimalist international co-production is, oddly, Daniele Abbado’s first show for Covent Garden. Previously seen at La Scala, Milan, its earnest austerity is presumably intended to neutralise the brazen, community-singing aspect of Verdi’s breakthrough opera.
We are in a shades-of-grey world. Alison Chitty’s set, essentially a brick wall and a sandpit containing large rectangular slabs, is dwarfed sporadically by Luca Scarzella’s video projections, exploring the same motifs to impressive effect. The extensive use of real fire in Act II makes a particular impact amid so much monochrome.
The post-Holocaust costuming, complete with cardies and specs, implies the second half of the 20th century but provides little in the way of social stratification to assist with plot and motivation. Everyone is a potential exile so everyone looks the same bar the odd skullcap. Booing from the amphitheatre on opening night suggests that detail is not always visible from parts of the house.
Musically we are in safe hands. Conductor Nicola Luisotti blazes through the score with brisk efficiency and the vastly experienced Leo Nucci brings the requisite gravitas and a forgivable whiff of ham to his umpteenth assumption of the title role. That the voice, tired at the start, acquires greater authority as the night wears on is quite an achievement for a septuagenarian.
Liudmyla Monastyrska’s villainous Abigaille is wonderfully secure vocally, even if her theatrical poses look dated. Vitalij Kowaljow, a fellow Ukrainian, acts as well as sings a finely focused Zaccaria, but why is this Hebrew prophet dressed as a young businessman?
Verdi’s intentions are compromised, yet the evening arguably succeeds on its own terms. The chorus, specially reinforced, excels.